Authority, Leadership, and Truth

I like to push back when people define leadership primarily in terms of the people at the top of the organizational chart. That's authority, not leadership. I define leadership in terms of a system capacity, and I expect leadership to exist everywhere in the organization (though that might just be a typical Gen X view?).

Of course, I don't mean to ignore authority. Positions of authority play vital roles in the leadership equation. This hit me again recently as I was thinking about the concept of truth. Nancy Iannone, in a comment to my last post, wanted to know about "creating organizational cultures where truth is more valued and supported." Authority is huge in answering that question.

Specifically where the issues of organizational culture and truth-telling intersect, the role of the authority figure is paramount. Every statement and every behavior of the "leader(s)" in a system will be examined and interpreted in ways that guide the behavior of others. I think back to Art Kleiner's book Who Really Matters. He argues there's a core group in every organization, and the organization will move in the direction that the core group wants to go, or (and this is key) in the direction people THINK the core group wants to go.

That's right. If you're in the core group, there are times where it won't matter which direction you actually want to go–if your people think you want to go somewhere else, they'll go somewhere else! So if you're at the top of the organizational chart, I have some questions for you:

When an important issue emerges, do you stay silent about it?

When you enter a conversation where some difficult things need to be said on both sides, do you go first?

How do you react when people speak truth you don't want to hear? Do you actively seek feedback from a variety of sources about your reactions?

When it comes to building a culture that supports truth, the leader's behavior is perhaps disproportionately important. Subtle changes in behavior can end up having larger impacts on how others in the system embrace truth-telling. So if you're on top, or at least in the "core group," spend some of your "leadership development" resources on enhancing your truth-telling skills.


  1. 04.06.2009 at 8:08 pm

    Your observations on the role of the leader (and core group) in creating truth-telling culture really struck a chord with me.
    Recognizing the impact of the core group(perception being reality) and modeling the listening skills and openness to new ideas are all important components in the cultural change.
    What are we doing to prepare our leaders to create a truth-telling culture?

  2. 07.06.2009 at 6:48 pm

    Good comments. I like your test questions.
    We are working with several organizations that are interested in creating “transformational leaders.” One of the characteristics of a transformational leader seems to be an openness to accepting hard truths, but also telling hard truths in ways that don’t punish others.